Jenny Davidson Talks to Crystal B. Lake, author of Artifacts

JMD: Crystal, you are one of the founding editors of The Rambling, and you were initially resistant to the idea that I would interview you about Artifacts in case it looked like nepotism. Fortunately, I persuaded you that it wouldn’t be inappropriate, and I’m going to prove that I’m not giving you preferential treatment by opening with a very tough question—one that I think the book ultimately answers (see my next question below!) but that caused me some difficulty as I made my way through the opening chapters. It has to do with the definition of your central term artifact. Based on the work I’ve been doing on eighteenth-century European historiography, I mistakenly assumed that artifacts would be items created by human hands (the OED’s primary definition is “an object made or modified by human workmanship, as opposed to one formed by natural processes”). I also wrongly imagined that the category wouldn’t include manuscripts, as in the historiographical debates, there is a significant distinction between the evidence of textual authorities and the newer forms of material evidence (coins, inscriptions, other archeological finds) on which historians have come increasingly to rely. To define the term artifact so as to include manuscripts and natural curiosities of the kind that Sir Hans Sloane collected very much seems to go against the grain both of etymology and of eighteenth-century usage. What work did you need artifact to do, and did you consider other possible terms before focusing on this one?

CBL: I’m so glad you wanted to read my book, Jenny, and that you and Sarah both persuaded me that it was okay for me to do this interview for The Rambling! I’m especially pleased that the timing worked out so that this interview is appearing in our “Dayton” issue; all the other authors in this issue are colleagues, graduate students, or former graduate students at Wright State, and it’s a special honor to get to publish alongside them one year after our faculty strike.

To get right to answering your first question (and it is a tough one!): Yes, I did consider using a different key term—a lot of different key terms, even! The book focuses on the detritus from the past that piled up in the long eighteenth century and includes chapter-length case studies that follow the old bric-a-brac that was most commonly found, collected, and studied in the period: rusty coins, scraps of paper, obsolete weapons, and grave goods. Sometimes, eighteenth-century writers described these objects as “ruins” or “monuments,” but “antiquities” is the term that was most used in the 1700s to name the objects that my book examines. I worried, though, that for my readers, “antiquities” would immediately conjure images of classical sculptures, and I was following grittier objects from the more recent past.

And all of those objects reflect the historiographical shift that began in the seventeenth century which, as you point out, questioned the reliability of textual evidence. That historiographical shift, however, set off a flurry of archival research because primary source materials, like manuscripts, were considered to be more akin to objects and, as a result, more reliable than historians’ second-hand texts. For example, the eighteenth-century antiquarian print series Vetusta Monumenta (a title that translates as Ancient Monuments) includes images of found manuscripts right alongside images of tombs, mosaics, fonts, lamps, picturesque abbeys, you name it. Similarly, you’d find not only fossils, shells, animal skins, and rocks but also ancient coins in cabinets of curiosity or museums. Meanwhile, the new historiography resulted in descriptions of everything: from architectural piles and private collections to weather patterns and fruit trees.

Trying to avoid anachronisms led me, in the end, to choose a slightly anachronistic key term for the book. Although the word artifacts was around as early as 1644, it wasn’t frequently used in the long eighteenth century, but I didn’t want to use the words that would have been used then because their meanings have since shifted.

Even though the OED defines artifacts as the “objects made or modified by human workmanship,” we call all kinds of things artifacts all the time. In this sense, the word accurately conveys for my readers the varieties of stuff that people dug up in the wake of that historiographical shift.

So Artifacts really came together for me when I stopped assuming that the only viable vocabularies for explaining the past were the past’s vocabularies. That so many different words were used in the 1700s to describe old stuff, that the meanings of those words have since settled into designating specific kinds of items, and that we now use the word “artifact” as a catchall term for whatever’s leftover—all that leads to what I hope is the book’s real payoff: a definition of “artifact” that’s based on historical texts and practices which also, I argue in the book, shaped how we think and write about artifacts today.

JMD: If I could only recommend one segment of your book, it would be your afterword, “The Artifactual Form.” I found it riveting, and I am itching to ask you more questions in person! Based on what the book’s shown about how artifacts don’t settle “firmly in their fact networks,” instead producing discursive debate and precipitating texts that increasingly attempt to reproduce aspects of the artifacts’ materiality in their own formal features, you suggest here that these texts “were especially ripe for interrogation into their truth-claims, their ideological motivations, and their authors’, readers’, and critics’ commitments to objects as agents without intent. In this way, artifacts had effects on the structures, meanings, and readings of many of the texts produced in the long eighteenth century.” It’s a powerful and quite broad category: my question, then, is how broad? Later on the same page you say that “[t]he artifactual form is compelling as an aesthetic mode because it stages contradictions and provokes its readers to interact with the text as if it were an artifact in need of completion and interpretation.” Can we think about Pamela as an artifact, or The Sorrows of Young Werther? And what would it mean to conceive of the epistolary novel as an artifactual form more generally? What about poems annotated by their authors (not just the Scriblerians but Grainger, Gray)?

CBL: I think this question and the one that follows are even harder than the first, Jenny!

In the book, I explain that the key thing that artifacts do is keep us guessing. One way artifacts can be distinguished from other objects is partly by how good they are at goading us into debating how to interpret them. All those odds and sods that people started finding in the long eighteenth century consistently elicited similar kinds of responses: a question, some variation on “what is it” or “what does it mean,” followed by a relay of unsatisfying answers, “it’s this, and it means this; well, maybe it’s this, but it still means that; no wait, it’s this and it doesn’t mean that.”

I argue that the old objects that yielded conclusive answers to the questions of “what is it” and “what does it mean” coalesced into categories that our contemporary, more stabilized vocabularies reflect; we know what a ruin is, what a souvenir is, and so on. The found objects that don’t yield conclusive answers to the questions “what is it” and “what does it mean” are artifacts. And in the book, I suggest that those objects have some qualities in common. The short version is: they’re fragments. Just enough of the artifact remains to lead us to believe that we can find answers to the questions we have about it, but the parts of the artifact that are missing mean that the answers we come up with are never conclusive; they’re always up for debate.

Let me put this another way. As observable, material objects, artifacts bait fact-based interpretations; as fragments, however, artifacts also require us to engage in imaginative speculations about the parts of the artifact that we can’t see or the histories we can’t (or don’t yet) know. I make the case, therefore, that artifacts are literary objects. Because they keep us guessing, artifacts provoke ongoing textual exegesis, and the texts that emerge around artifacts similarly bait fact-based interpretations and imaginative speculations that can always be called into question.

Artifactual texts demonstrate a longing for the objects that they represent to determine the nature of their representation and their ensuing interpretation—but those texts also confront the failure of the artifacts they depict to do so satisfactorily. An artifactual text’s “relationships to that which it represents exist in states of incompleteness, erosion, or decay,” and readers experience the text as if it were an artifact: as “a piece of a whole or as part of a sequence” that the reader might discover and complete for herself. The examples I provide in the book include texts like The Spectator, Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”

Despite its pretensions to factuality, Pamela still reads (at least to me) as transparently fictional while The Sorrows of Young Werther and author-annotated poems stake a hard claim to authorial intent. These qualities signal the texts as complete in a way that means I’d say, at best, they are “soft” iterations or variations on what I describe as the artifactual form.

JMD: And a follow-up: what forms then remain non-artifactual, or would you say that artifactual form is dominant in Britain in the later eighteenth century?

CBL: In the book, I identify the artifactual form as “a liminal aesthetic mode, emerging historically between the Augustan and the Romantics, encompassing both simultaneously, and preserving them in an ongoing state of tension and interchange.” I think, therefore, that it’s fair to say that the artifactual form is prevalent in Britain throughout the long eighteenth century, but I don’t know if I’m comfortable declaring it to be the dominant form. As far as what texts are “non-artifactual,” I’d say that it’s useful to think of the form as toggling between M. H. Abrams’s mirror and lamp. Consequently, texts that appear to be sufficiently confident in their authors’, speakers’, or narrators’ representations (mirror texts) wouldn’t be good candidates for the artifactual form—sermons and other explicitly didactic texts, for example. Similarly, texts that appear to be happily unconstrained by referentiality (lamp texts) wouldn’t be good candidates for it, either—like some of Coleridge’s dreamier poems.

I confess, though, that what I really want to say in response to these last two thoughtful questions is: I don’t know! What do you think? The debates about artifacts that I track in the book helped me to better appreciate just how productive disagreements can be. I think we put too much pressure on academic publications to stand as the final, unassailable word on their subjects. One of the reasons I love your column, even as I’m dodging your question, is that it reflects what I think we should all remember should be the point of publishing our research: to start, rather than to end, conversations.

JMD: Your main argument intelligently invokes Bruno Latour, Michel Serres, many object-oriented ontologists and new materialists (Jane Bennett’s term vibrancy is especially useful and important). I’m also impressed locally by the way you borrow theoretical concepts and use them to illuminate your eighteenth-century materials: I loved how you invoked Sianne Ngai’s discussion of the interesting in order to show how and why eighteenth-century artifacts “called out for interpretations—for readings, we might say—that supplemented their states of fragmentation with discursive explications.” What tips can you offer to scholars who’d like to do more of this kind of thinking in their own work?

CBL: My answer to this question loops me back to the first insofar as I would say that I was initially reticent to use these kinds of contemporary sources when writing about the past because I was afraid I’d be committing the sin of anachronism. In the decade I spent working on Artifacts, though, it was hard not to bump into the new materialisms, and I just kept thinking that it didn’t make sense for me to pretend like either people weren’t having these conversations right now or that they’d never had similar conversations before. And I thought that the conversations that people had about artifacts in the eighteenth century had insights to offer the new materialists. Specifically, the representations of artifacts from the period warn us that we shouldn’t count on objects to act reliably as the agents of the political changes we’d like to see happen.

I’m grateful to Joe Roach for reminding all of us that the long eighteenth century isn’t over yet—and to Sean Silver and Tina Lupton, whose work so eloquently reminds me that our contemporary ideas about things come from somewhere. I try in my own research to follow their lead by looking for the threads that connect past and present ways of thinking.

As far as tips I can offer for other scholars who want to think historically with contemporary ideas—or who want to think about contemporary ideas, historically—I should say first of all that my partner specializes in post-45 literature and art, so I’m just lucky that way. I get to learn about new work in those fields while we cook dinner together. Otherwise, I do a couple of things to try and keep up with what’s happening outside of my subfield. I browse university press catalogues. I regularly review the tables of contents for the big bowwow journals in our field, especially the ones that publish work from scholars who specialize in different time periods. When I go to conferences, I confess that I often skip panels that are about “my” thing, preferring instead to listen in on panels that feature people whose scholarship I admire or that focus on what seem to me like surprising topics. I genuinely like learning about my colleagues’ work and ideas, so I read a lot of Twitter and ask a lot of questions in person, too.

JMD: The same traits that you bring to your work at The Rambling (intellectual generosity, keen intelligence, curiosity across many different regions of past and present thinking) are very much in evidence in Artifacts as well. Especially given the shrinking job market, many of our own students will be more likely to find themselves writing for larger audiences on the web than for the narrower circle of professional scholars in their subfield.  What advice do you have for eighteenth-centuryists and other literary scholars who would like to be doing more public-facing work?

CBL: Aw shucks, Jenny. Thank you for those kind words about The Rambling and Artifacts. I’m going to answer your question, especially for those readers who were hoping for some advice, but first I want to say perhaps some unexpectedly critical things about “writing for the public.”

All of us already feel so much urgency to “publish or perish,” to teach increasingly innovative courses that will grow our enrollments, to do more service for our institutions, and to advocate for our students, our colleagues, our profession, and our communities. I don’t understand why all this work doesn’t count as “public” work.

It’s also tempting to believe that writing for the public is easy because the writing that’s published for the public reads easy, but writing about complicated ideas and histories for large audiences is hard work. We don’t talk about that as much as we should. By and large, academics are not trained to write for the public, and although there are some who seem like they’re naturals at it, I suspect that their public writing is still hard work that’s hard-won.

In order to write for large audiences, you need to have the time and headspace to become familiar with the genre; it also helps to have connections and conversations with people who can explain how it’s different than writing for peer-reviewed venues; you have to stay tuned in so that you can be on the lookout for opportunities; you have to figure out what venues—as well as how—to pitch; and, of course, you have to actually write the thing, then (usually) revise the thing, then see the thing through its final publication stages, then promote the thing once its published; you have to work quickly, and on tight deadlines. All that takes time, and energy, and resources. Moreover, you have to have a thick skin not only for rejections but also for the critiques that are likely to come your way should you succeed at writing for large audiences. If you thought Reader 2 was a jerk, wait until you meet Readers 200, 2000, and all of their friends. And if you’re on the job market, reaching larger audiences also means reaching more potential critics.

I’m especially wary, then, of suggesting that contingent faculty, graduate students, and early career researchers should take on the additional, often unpaid, labor of “public writing.” I worry that we will lead people who have been left behind in the job market’s rapture to believe that reaching large audiences will increase their chances at landing a tenure-track job. Writing for large audiences will increase your odds on the job market in the same way that buying another lottery ticket will increase your odds of winning the jackpot. The problem isn’t that academics don’t do enough public writing; the problem is that there aren’t enough tenure-track jobs for academics.

There’s a lot of irony here. A punditry has been working for decades to shape the public’s perception of higher education to our detriment, and we need desperately to intervene in that narrative; meanwhile, the crisis in humanities means that the audience for peer-reviewed research is shrinking—some of our best and brightest are writing for the public because they’ve been shut out of the ivory tower. Adding insult to injury, we seem to me to have too often turned our professional commitments to critique inward. I’m not against critique, but I’m wary of how often it snarls into a lose-lose game of gatekeeping that ends with tearing apart and eating our own.

All that’s to say: I wish that every call that’s made for more academics to write for the public was matched by a call for fair working conditions in our universities, a call for more inclusivity, and a call for legislators to restore the funding that’s been withdrawn from higher ed over the last two decades.

Now, if our readers still want to write for the public after all that, here’s my advice ; ).

1. Do not fear “the pitch:” Most venues will tell you what they want you to include in a pitch, and you should follow their instructions. Most venues do not want you to send them completed pieces, but I personally recommend having the piece you’re pitching close to finished before you pitch for two reasons: I think it’s just easier to say what you’re your piece is about if you’ve already written most of it, and the best possible response you can expect to your pitch is usually some version of “Yes, send me what you’ve got, and I’ll take a look. Thank you.” There are a lot of great resources (with examples) out there now about how to pitch, but I just want to say: pitching is no big deal. Just describe, in a few sentences, what you’re writing about, why it matters or why now’s a good time to write about it, and who you are.

Where pitches go wrong: They’re too long. They open with “Hey, Ladies.” They read like you’re thinking out loud about what you might write, one day … maybe. They seem like they were written for a completely different venue.

If your pitch gets rejected, don’t take it personally unless you started with “Hey, Ladies.” The editors may have accepted another pitch already for a very similar topic. They may be taking the venue in a new direction. They may have a slate of full issues lined up for the foreseeable future. And if you send a pitch and don’t hear back, it’s fine to email again with a follow-up after a week or two. I recommend getting rid of any links you might have in your signature for that second email, just in case they landed your first pitch in a junk folder. If, after about a week, you haven’t heard back, you have your answer: it’s a no go, and you should feel free to send your pitch somewhere else.

2. Remember that your readers are smart, but they don’t know what you know: The advice that academics who want to write for the public get the most is probably some version of “nix the jargon.” Jargon isn’t the problem, though. Assuming that your readers will intuitively grasp all the meaning and nuance that’s packed into the terms that your colleagues in your subfield use on the regular is the problem. When you write for the public, try to imagine that your reader is a really smart undergraduate who is majoring in your area of study, but who has never taken a class with you. Write for her. Write an extra sentence here and there that defines the terms with which she might not be familiar, briefly provides any necessary backstories, or reminds her who someone is, what happened when, and why it’s important.

3. Give readers something that they can hold onto after they finish reading your piece: Include at least a couple of sentences that can stand on their own, outside of the context of the piece you’ve written as a whole. Here at The Rambling, we think of these as the “takeaway” sentences, and they are also the sentences we use as “pull quotes” to promote your work on social media.

4. Prepare yourself to be edited: Especially if you’re an academic, you’re used to having a lot of control over your writing. Sure, you may have to revise and resubmit, and your published peer-review work will be copyedited—but you’ll be used to being able to counter Reader 2’s criticism and rejecting copyedits that you don’t like. It doesn’t work that way for public writing. If the edits on your piece contort your meaning entirely, then by all means, say something; otherwise, you should trust your editors. Although you’re the expert on your work and your voice, your editors have a longer, wider view of their venue and their readers. Remember, too, that the turnaround time for publishing public writing is fast while there’s also a lot going on in the background that you don’t see: emails making decisions about pitches, edits, copyedits, titles, images, the line-up, formatting, promoting, etc. Additionally, a lot of academic authors who write for the public are surprised to find out that the editors often decide what to title your piece as well as what images will accompany it. Personally, I like that writing for the public means you have a whole team of people working behind the scenes on your publication (shoutout to Marguerite Happe, Samantha Morse, and Tony Wei Ling who keep The Rambling on track!)—but it can cause conflicts for academic writers who work alone most of the time and who are used to having complete control over every aspect of their writing.

5. Write shorter sentences, and avoid passive voice: That’s it. That’s the tweet, as the kids say.

Thank you, Jenny, for reading my book with so much verve and generosity.

Crystal B. Lake is a Professor of English at Wright State University and the author of Artifacts: How We Write and Think About Found Objects. With Sarah Tindal Kareem, she is the co-founder and co-editor of The Rambling. You can find Crystal on Twitter @crystal_b_lake.

5 Questions With Jenny Davidson is a regular column of The Rambling Reads that features conversations with authors of recently published works. If you’ve recently published a book and would like to be interviewed, please get in touch with us.

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